Gates Orlando probably won’t play in the alumni game between his former teammates from the Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 15 because he’ll be only 10 months removed from his heart transplant surgery. But he does plan on suiting up and skating in the pregame warm-ups. The 51-year-old is looking forward to that moment the way he looked forward to Christmas mornings as a young boy.
It’s been two years since the Amerks Hall of Famer and two-time Olympian last laced ’em up, two years since Orlando glided down a sheet of ice and felt the refreshing cool breeze against his cheeks.
“It’s going to be a very emotional moment for me,” he says of that exhibition game on the makeshift outdoor rink at Frontier Field. “A lot of things will be racing through my mind.”
He’ll think about those pond hockey games he played while growing up in Montreal. He’ll remember his seasons with Rochester and Buffalo in the late 1980s and his experiences playing for Italy at the 1994 and ’98 Olympics. He’ll replay that 208-day stretch when his artificial heart restricted him to a cardiac ward at Strong Memorial Hospital and to slow treks on a treadmill rather than rapid rushes on a rink. He’ll recount the care and kindness shown him by doctors and nurses, who went from being total strangers to devoted friends. Most of all, he’ll think about the donor whose death gave him a second shot at life.
“I’ll definitely be skating for two that day,” he says. “Me and my donor will be going up and down that ice together.”
Orlando began this miraculous journey two years ago while scouting a world juniors hockey tournament in Buffalo for the New Jersey Devils. After gasping for breath while negotiating a single flight of stairs at the First Niagara Center, Orlando was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease that essentially caused his own immune cells to attack his heart. Medication failed to halt the onslaught and Orlando was placed on a transplant waiting list.
With no donor available and his condition deteriorating, his cardiologist, Eugene Storozynsky M.D., convinced him to be fitted with a defibrillator vest. It wound up being a life-saving decision, because the vest shocked Orlando’s heart back into action after it stopped during a heart attack on May 22, 2011.
“It was scary,” he says. “I was dead for about 40 seconds.”
After the attack, Orlando had a defibrillator implanted in his body, but that was only a temporary solution. By April 2012, he had become gravely ill and Todd Massey M.D., a cardiologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, suggested they transplant an artificial heart into Orlando’s chest to keep him alive until a suitable donor heart became available.
“The good news was that they had an artificial heart ready to go and I qualified for it, given my condition,” Orlando says. “The bad news was that they had never transplanted one of these before, so it would be a gamble. But I was all for it. There really was no other option.”
The operation—the first of its kind in Upstate New York—was a success, and after Orlando spent 10 months with the artificial ticker, a human heart was found. On Feb. 4, he received his new heart, and he was released from the hospital a month later.
“I’m progressing nicely,” he says. “There are still some issues, but I’ve had mostly good days. I’m able to work and do a lot of stuff I wasn’t able to do just a few months ago.”
Orlando’s goal these days is to raise awareness about organ donation. The National Hockey League scout was reluctant at first to become a poster boy for the cause because he didn’t want to call attention to himself. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had an obligation.
“To not publicize it would be selfish and a disservice to the donor and his family,” Orlando says.
New York ranks very low in the percentage of adults registered as organ donors—47th at just 13 percent. And more than 3,000 people are waiting for heart transplants, including about 40 at URMC.
“I understand that it’s an uncomfortable topic for many because you are talking about a person’s mortality,” he says. “But I’m living proof of the importance of it. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the generosity of a donor and his family. I can’t think of a greater gift to give.
“I don’t try to browbeat people. I just ask them to answer a simple question: Would you receive an organ if it meant it would save your life? If you answer yes, then I believe you should be willing to donate your organs when your time comes.”
Orlando is thankful for the overwhelming support he’s received from a place that became his permanent home in 1984. His three boys were born and raised here, and he has formed canyon-deep friendships with many Amerks teammates who stayed here, especially Geordie Robertson and Jody Gage.
“It’s been a great place to live,” Orlando says. “Even when I was playing professionally in Europe, I’d always come back.” He pauses for a moment, then adds, impishly, “And, anyway, how could I ever leave a place that named a town after me?”
No, the town of Gates was not named for the Canadian whose real first name is Gaetano, but he revels in telling the corny joke, nonetheless.
It is good to hear him laugh again. It is good to see him back to being his old self. This was the greatest gift he’s ever received—a second shot at life.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock ’n’ roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
11/29/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.